Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

James Lawton: Twenty20 slogging may give us a vision of the future, but it certainly isn't cricket

If ever you get into a debate about the sheer soul-numbing degradation of cricket that is currently being enacted under the pjyama-clad guise of World Twenty20, you might care to submit Exhibit A.

It is a paragraph composed with splendid economy by a wire reporter in his account of Sri Lanka's massacre of Kenya in Johannesburg.



Having described the ravaging of Kenya's bowlers by such as Mahela Jayawardene and Sanath Jayasuriya, he wrote: "They were outdone by Jehan Mubarak, who hit five sixes and three fours to reach 46 from a dozen balls. One more boundary would have broken Mohammad Ashraful's record for the fastest half-century, but he missed the final delivery of the innings completely."



Here, I believe, we have an impeccably accurate record of facts made utterly banal by their context.



Twenty20 is not cricket. It does not have growth, that sublime building of skill and concentration and timing which makes the Test game so ultimately intriguing – nor much of the declining, but sometimes still visible, fundamental qualities of the game which are offered down the food chain until, as in the crudest making of an omelette, the eggs are smashed in the version which is now having imposed upon it, in another money-grubbing lunge, the dignity of a world title.



In the process, cricket uses up its prime talent with the profligacy of a doomed punter chasing from one casino to another.



Sure, cricket is picking up a new audience with its catch-penny offerings, but maybe it should reflect on the fact that you can squeeze the cantaloupe only until the pips start squeaking. Novelties are fine, but then that's what they are: short-lived and best found not in a sport which has a great tradition, and no doubt a challenge to compete in the modern cornucopia of televised sport, but in some trinket shop at the end of a pier.



The point about the pummelling performance of Mubarak is that it ended in a stroke which would have brought sniggers on the average village green – and posed the question, how many times can you roar and gasp before subsiding into a shrug? I was once chastised on a TV show by Britain's top boxing promoter, Frank Warren, for a failure of enthusiasm for the way Prince Naseem Hamed was being promoted. Dry ice, jiggling entrances and dances over the prone figures of grossly inadequate opponents, might not gladden the hearts of the old fight crowd, but we all had to remember that boxing was looking for a new audience.



Yet we know that if boxing tomorrow produced a fight of genuine competition by two outstanding masters of their trade the world would be instantly fascinated. It remains as the great Muhammad Ali once said: "The whole world wants to know: who's gonna win, who's gonna win?"



The dry ice and the stagey entrances didn't do Hamed, or boxing, much good, when he was finally ordered into the ring – by his American TV paymasters – against an opponent who was equipped to administer some of the old game's verities. Marco Antonio Barrera proved that the best of any sport doesn't have to be sold, but merely presented.



The latest drama from Twenty20 is that England's Kevin Pietersen and South Africa's Shaun Pollock were involved in a sensational run-out controversy.



Sensational? What is really sensational in a game built on the allure of a blacksmith's slog?



Certainly, it is not the kind of slow-building drama that made cricket the compulsion of most sports lovers in this country deep into the start of a new Premiership season two years ago, when the Ashes were finally, and so tragically briefly, won back. Or the thunderous glory of the Ian Botham slog that emerged from within the disciplined limits of an unforgettable Ashes Test match at Headingley. Or the sublime Garfield Sobers smiting Malcolm Nash for six sixes in an over. That last feat was a diamond which, when we saw it, we knew would glitter for ever. In Twenty20 it would probably have brought on not much more than a bout of flatulence.



Streamline cricket by all means. Emphasise its allure. But do not destroy its fundamental quality. Do not heap upon us this trashy version which would have made Don Bradman and Denis Compton squirm, which insults all that is best about the game which we know can still, in its highest form, bring whole nations to the edges of their seats.



Where Twenty20 brings us is to that novelty shop with the funny masks – and the stink bombs.



Hamilton should quit racing towards meaningless prize

It was an outrageous move by Fernando Alonso and, in normal circumstances, the outrage of Lewis Hamilton would have been readily endorsed.



However, we now know that the double world champion Alonso includes a form of blackmail in his unholy repertoire of career enhancement and, beside that, his attempt to drive his notional McLaren team-mate off the track has to be seen as not much more than routine skulduggery in a "sport" which now has the morality quota of a back-alley convention of cut-throats.



This is our shining hero Hamilton's great problem now. Though not directly implicated in the industrial espionage which led to his team's record £50m fine, he is still, though by a declining margin, the most likely beneficiary when the world drivers' championship points are counted at the end of the season.



It means that when Hamilton solemnly criticises Alonso for his lack of sportsmanship he should also, as a matter of urgency, review his own position. He said: "For someone who looks up to someone who is trying to set a status, and someone for a youngster to look up to, he's not really standing up to his position."



But then who is? Is there not someone out there with the concern and the integrity, and to whom the youngster might listen, to say that he is running so hard for a title that will inevitably be meaningless?



The free career advice from here would be that he declare what is self-evident and, with as much dignity as he can muster, withdraw from the action, announcing that he will resume, with a stunningly acquired and almost instant reputation, when this disgraceful season is over. He would be saying that he is no longer interested in an empty prize.



It is not likely to happen, of course, but what would Hamilton be losing? Only guilt by association, by complicity in one of the most outrageous pieces of cheating any sport has even seen. Yes, it would be a tough call, but only to a certain extent. This is because it would be the right one.



Farrell ordeal the result of England's failure to prepare



In all the sadness carried away on the late-night Metro from England's pitiful display against South Africa at the Stade de France, there had to be one supreme regret.



It was for the continuing ordeal of a once great performer, Andy Farrell. You may say that the former Wigan superstar has been well rewarded for his ordeal in another code, but if you have done what Farrell did in his youth, and if you still have pride in yourself, there is no price to be put on the humiliation he now suffers.



You may also say that Farrell's labourings were just another badge of an English mediocrity that only Jason Robinson was able to rise above before he was struck down by injury. But then no one else on the field had Farrell's pedigree. No one else ever bestrode his sport so majestically, though it has to be said that the Springbok scrum-half Fourie du Preez is certainly imbued with such potential.



Injury, and a year-long absence, did not help Farrell's controversial attempt to turn himself into a front-rank union player, but this did not begin to mitigate the folly of the decision to pursue an ageing player of another game in the wake of England's 2003 World Cup triumph.



Indeed, it is more obvious than ever that when England moved for Farrell it was the opposite of a bold investment in a future which had excited so much optimism on that triumphant night in Sydney four years ago.



It was an admission of panic, a statement that the team who had finished on top of the world needed some outside help if they were not to slide towards the bottom of it with indecent haste.



Part of Farrell's agony, surely, is that instead of a saviour he has proved the most compelling evidence that England came back from their great triumph only with a plan to celebrate – and not a clue about where they went next.

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